Hobbits will inherit the earth

Eric Rahman, a master’s student in my Post-war Reconstruction and Transition class this term, writes about Srdja Popovic’s appearance at SAIS yesterday:

Srdja Popovic is a Serbian political activist and executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). He was a leader of the student movement Otpor!, which helped topple Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. He has taught at the Harvard Kennedy School, NYU, and the University of Colorado, among others.

There are few individuals with a history of working in such close proximity to conflict who exhibit quite the optimism and exuberance as Popovic. In an event held at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on the morning of February 10, the author of the recently published Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World discussed his vision for effective social mobilization to execute non-violent revolution.

He relied on a metaphor drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series:
it is the average individual, the person you would least expect, the hobbits, who
can have the greatest impact and transform their societies through non-violent means. Popovic pointed to the electrician Lech Wałęsa and the camera shop owner Harvey Milk to illustrate that it is not institutional elites who bring about change but rather it is hobbits, who rely on their creativity to build a movement and have a lasting impact.

In spite of humorous analogies and moments of levity, Popovic presented a sober
analysis of which conditions and methods are most conducive to fomenting a social movement that can truly effect change in repressive societies. He advocates non-violence even when pitted against a brutally violent adversary. Non-violence is preferable not because violence is morally unacceptable, but because non-violence is the most effective and efficient means to combat a growing menace, as illustrated by the statistics in Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.

The threat of ISIS he likened to a swarm of mosquitos. The temptation is
to swat them. But to combat the infestation, one has to turn attention to the source: wet areas or the swamps. There is a confluence of pernicious factors that coalesced to create permissive conditions for ISIS’s rise, but one fundamental issue is the failure of states to deliver services and the resulting vacuum of credibility and legitimacy. This can only be countered by the actual provision of expected basic
services by governments. Service provision will undercut the ISIS narrative and shrink recruitment.

There is an alarming perception among many Iraqi youth that ISIS is ‘cool.’ This perception is destabilizing and arises from lack of alternatives. There is no Iraqi ‘Batman’ or ‘Superman’ young people can look to for moral-cultural education during their formative years, which leaves them susceptible to the sophisticated propaganda machine of an organization such as ISIS.

The Arab spring and the Ukrainian crisis illustrate in Popovic’s view the consequences when a movement lacks long-term vision. In Egypt for example, the
revolution achieved its expressed goal of unseating Hosni Mubarak within the first month of the protests (four years ago today!). But once the moment came to construct a new model of government and service delivery, there was a dearth of strategic planning and the movement began to disintegrate. A similar situation existed in Ukraine following the Orange Revolution in 2003, causing the intra-Ukrainian conflict to simmer and break out again into crisis last year.

Popovic summed up his argument with an apt analogy: “Non-violent struggles are like video games. They have levels and you need a new set of skills for each level.” Despite the challenges faced and the skills required, it is the hobbits who eventually carry the day.

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